On Friday night, I posted this picture on Facebook.
Due to the nature of my most recent research, before the film was released, several of my friends and relatives sent me the trailer, and now that I’ve seen the movie, I’ve gotten a lot of messages asking me what I thought about it.
Until now, I haven’t answered any of those messages, and I’ll tell you why: It’s complicated.
First off: Although I am a research dork and I usually know a little about historical movies and books and etc. before I buy a ticket or I dive into a first chapter, with Suffragette, I’d only seen the trailer. That’s it. I knew it was about the British suffrage movement, and I knew that Meryl Streep, my fantasy lead actress for the role of Helen for when MY movie gets made was stolen for the project, (and I ain’t gonna lie here- I was a wee bit peeved when I saw that Meryl was starring in a suffrage film, because, like I said, she’s my fantasy Helen) but I literally knew nothing else about this movie. Nothing.
So, before I tell you what I thought about the movie, I am going to start with a little history of the British women’s suffrage movement. Why? Because I think that non-British viewers need it before going it. If you don’t know anything at all, it can be a little confusing and hard to follow at first because the suffrage movement in the United Kingdom was MUCH different than it was over on this side of the pond. (And NOT, as the idiots who sat next to us in the theater opined, because they “made the movie using accents. It would’ve been much better without all those accents.”)
The first thing you need to know about the movie is this: in America, the words suffragist and suffragette are pretty much interchangeable. Sure, adding “-ette” to the end of a word adds a twinge of condescension in our overly politically correct atmosphere, but the word itself didn’t have a different meaning. In America, it’s more like calling a female actor an actress.
In England, however, the words themselves meant two very different things.
Before the Reform Act of 1832, most people in Britain didn’t have the right to vote. This legislation was aimed to broaden the franchise by allowing more than just wealthy adult male landholders a say in the government. (Remember your history, my Yankee peeps. Those chapters about the Revolutionary War and taxation without representation come in handy here.) Reform Acts in 1867 and 1884 gave voting rights to some men, but distinctly excluded women. Although women were denied the vote at a national level, some women were permitted to vote in local elections in certain situations, and only under specific circumstances.
In the 1860s, a group of middle-class ladies formed the Langham Place Group to campaign for women’s issues. Millicent Garrett was involved in this group, and in 1867, she became Millicent Fawcett when she married Cambridge professor and Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) Henry Fawcett. MP Fawcett was blind, so Millicent acted as his guide and secretary. By doing this, Mrs Fawcett learned about the political process. This experience became crucial in the future of British women’s suffrage. After Henry died, Millicent immersed herself into the suffrage campaign as a suffragist. She believed in the constitutional process—that by using legal, law-abiding methods like petitions, lobbying, special marches, and showing respect for the law, women could prove that they deserved the right to vote because they were good citizens. She became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which boasted more than 50,000 members by 1913.
In 1903, Mrs Fawcett and the suffragists welcomed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) headed by Emmeline Pankhurst. This is where things started to shift.
In 1879, Emmeline Gouldon married Richard Pankhurst, a radical lawyer who was known as a supporter of the suffrage movement. The Pankhursts became active in the Independent Labour Party, and opened a chapter in Manchester. When Richard died in 1898, the ILP opened a hall in his memory in Salford. Mrs Pankhurst was outraged when she found out that women couldn’t join the branch named in her husband’s honor. In 1903, she founded the WSPU, an organization in which, “deeds, not words” would be their motto.
During the WSPU’s early years, Mrs Pankhurst and her union participated with Mrs Fawcett and the NUWSS in non-violent activities. For about two years (1903-1905, more or less) they organized marches, petitioned parliament, and spoke to women of all classes about women’s rights together. In 1905, Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter, Christabel, and a friend disrupted a Liberal Party meeting in Manchester, were ejected from the hall, and ordered to pay fines or face imprisonment. The extensive media coverage of their disruption and following imprisonment gave birth to a new era in the suffrage movement.
In 1906, Charles Hands of the Daily Mail referred to the militant female suffragists as suffragettes (meant as an insult). Mrs Pankhurst embraced the term and moved the WPSU headquarters to London. The suffragettes were born.
The suffragettes’ tactics became increasingly more violent and militant and organizations such as Mrs Fawcett’s NUWSS began to distance themselves from the WSPU. The suffragettes began to oppose all established parties in the ruling class, often leading to the defeat of candidates who did, in fact, support women’s suffrage. As time ticked on, the suffragettes were ridiculed and disparaged by pretty much everyone both inside and outside politics for their actions, but the suffragettes would not back down until voting rights for women was made a priority.
At first, Prime Minister Asquith and the Members of Parliament reacted with indifference towards the suffragettes. This angered Mrs Pankhurst and the WSPU, and some of the members used this indifference as fuel to up their game. They marched, they protested, and they threw rocks at the Prime Minister’s house (in British history, male political agitators had broken windows in the pursuit of civil and legal rights). As their violence increased, Mrs Pankhurst went into hiding, and her daughter Christabel went into exile in France.
Mrs Pankhurst and the loyal militant suffragettes were frequently jailed for their deeds. While imprisoned, they were either held with violent criminals or in solitary confinement. To call attention to their conditions, they often staged hunger strikes while in prison. Their starvation attempts were met with painful and dangerous force feedings via nasal tubes or clamps to hold their jaws open.
As tensions between the government and suffrage groups rose, tensions also rose between the WSPU and the more moderate organizations, such as the NUWSS. In the beginning, Mrs Fawcett had hailed the WSPU members for their courage and dedication. But by 1912, her opinions had changed drastically. She declared that the antics utilized by the WSPU were publicity stunts and were becoming the chief obstacles in the success of the suffrage movement. The NUWSS declined to march alongside the WSPU unless they would agree to end their militant, dangerous, and destructive practices.
Following the liberal losses in the 1910 elections, a Conciliation Committee for Women’s Suffrage was formed and put for the Conciliation Bills of 1910, 1911 and 1912— bills that would grant suffrage to some women—mainly wealthy, property-owning women. None were passed.
When the 1912 Conciliation Bill was rejected, the WSPU escalated their radical approach. Window-breaking, arson, the use of explosives, hunger strikes during incarceration, throwing acid on golf courses, and other tactics. Government responded with police brutality against the women, groping their breasts during protests, incarceration in solitary confinement, forced feedings during hunger strikes, and more.
It was an ugly time, to say the least.
So this is when the movie Suffragette begins. (No real spoilers.)
Mrs Pankhurst is in hiding. The suffragettes are out in force, breaking windows, inciting crowds of working-class women, and east end Londoners are divided. Men are still the head of their families and women have no voice and no control, but in the labor class, both husbands and wives work. Men earn more money for less work and shorter hours. There’s no birth control. Disease is rampant. Working conditions are awful. Altogether, it’s pretty bleak.
Our hero is the fictional Maud Watts, a 24-year old laundry worker. She spends her daylight hours doing backbreaking work in the Glasshouse Laundry for a skeevy, boss who manhandles her in front of her husband. When a customer’s package doesn’t make it on the truck for the afternoon delivery, the skeevy boss chucks it to Maud and tells her to make the delivery.
This opening series of events puts Maud in the right place at the right time (or the right place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it). She’s on her way to deliver the laundry on a posh street when one of Mrs Pankhurt’s sanctioned rock-throwing, window-breaking melees breaks out. Maud falls, hurts her hand, and runs home, afraid and confused.
When she arrives home, we see her husband, Sonny, and their son, George. Sonny helps Maud clean up her wounded hand and listens as she tells him a little about the chaos she has just witnessed. He seems sympathetic, but not too sympathetic—it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t really agree with the suffragettes and that he doesn’t particularly like the idea of his wife hanging around with them. The brief evening routine and the next morning before work scene illustrate how bleak and future-less the Watts’ lives are.
The next morning back at the Laundry, Maud recognizes some of the rock-throwers, and they invite her to come listen to a lecture on Votes for Women. Her interest is piqued, and she quickly gets swept in over her head. At first, she’s reluctant, but slowly, Maud finds her strength and her own voice, though she loses everything she’s known her whole life in the process.
We meet many fictional characters along our journey with Maud, but we also make the acquaintance of some real-life suffragettes. Mrs Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) makes an appearance, and Emily Wilding Davison provides the heart-stopping didIreallyjustseethat moment that we Americans did NOT see coming. (Unless you know about the 1913 Epsom Derby. In which case, the didIreallyjustseethat moment is clarified a little since the real-life event has been somewhat shrouded in mystery for the last century.)
I’m not going to give away the whole story or the ending because I think it’s a movie worth seeing. I think it was well acted and well written, though in parts, it was a little like Forrest Gump (because you keep thinking OMG! Maud was there! She was there for everything! Laundry house, Parliament, prison, rabble-rousing, explosions, exploitation, sexual harassment, injustice, the Epsom Derby… she even got to open the carriage door for Mrs Pankhurst herself!). But, in defense of the script, Maud HAD to be in all those places because we had to see the big picture and we had to see all the different things that happened to the suffragettes and the ramifications of their actions and we had to see the struggle.
Of the bad reviews I’ve seen, they’ve mostly been because the reviewer is seeing the film through 2015 lenses. Or, more specifically, 2015 American lenses. You simply can’t watch a film like this in that way. Suffragette takes on a very thin slice of a movement that sadly, is still in progress. These reviewers knock the film more for what it isn’t than for what it is.
Suffragette is a film about a thin slice of the struggles for equality of one specific group of women in one country in the span of one year. It’s not meant to be the ultimate game-changing feminist wake up call in which millions of moviegoers worldwide will suddenly undergo a life changing experience and suddenly be compelled to right all the wrongs of the past. It’s not about every woman’s struggle. It’s not about the American suffrage struggle. It’s not about multiculturalism or the glorification of violence or the exclusion of anyone. No. It’s a slice of history. It’s a, “hey! These women contributed to the advancement of women’s rights.” Did they do it perfectly? No. But they did what they did a century ago, and regardless of our thoughts on the subject, their stories matter.
The most gripping part of the entire film was the Epsom Derby at the end. If you’re going to slug down a big gulp, make sure you can hold on until after the credits because you don’t want to miss the ending. I’m quite the Anglophile, and I was pretty surprised that I didn’t know this bit of British history.
So, in my opinion, go see it. But don’t blink or you’ll miss Meryl (but this makes me happy because now it wouldn’t be type casting, sooooooo…..)
And Sarah Gavron, if by some chance of luck or fate or an accidental click you find my blog about Helen Ekin Starrett, call me. Her story is fascinating. I promise.
© Julie Dirkes Phelps; Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller. © Copyright 2015. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask.